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GPS in space research brings autonomous interplanetary travel closer to reality

An accurate method for spacecraft navigation takes a leap forward today as the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) and our University publish a paper that reveals a spacecraft’s position in space in the direction of a particular pulsar can be calculated autonomously, using a small X-ray telescope on board the craft, to an accuracy of 2km.

The method uses X-rays emitted from pulsars, which can be used to work out the position of a craft in space in 3D to an accuracy of 30 km at the distance of Neptune. Pulsars are dead stars that emit radiation in the form of X-rays and other electromagnetic waves. For a certain type of pulsar, called ‘millisecond pulsars’, the pulses of radiation occur with the regularity and precision of an atomic clock and could be used much like GPS in space. 

Dr John Pye, Space Research Centre Manager, said: “Up until now, the concept of pulsar-based navigation has been seen just as that – a concept. This simulation uses technology in the real world and proves its capabilities for this task. Our X-ray telescope can be feasibly launched into space due to its low weight and small size; indeed, it will be part of a mission to Mercury in 2018. NPL’s timing analysis capability has been developed over many years due to its long heritage in atomic clocks.

"We are entering a new era of space exploration as we delve deeper into our solar system, and this paper lays the foundations for a potential new technology that will get us there.” 

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